Meet Brown's champion for Latinx students

After decades dedicated to expanding diversity in the student body, Mercedes Domenech is honored with a renamed scholarship.

“Opportunity changes people,” says Mercedes Domenech.

She should know. Domenech, who grew up and earned her medical degree in Spain, discovered that she could only practice medicine in the U.S. by completing another residency. Repeating that experience in this country did not interest her. Working with students, however, did.

Encouraged by her friend Brown professor Cynthia Garcia Coll, Domenech applied for, and obtained, a position in the Office of Admission. That's where she experienced a calling of sorts: helping to diversify the student body. “It's important to have people of Latinx background who weren't being represented among top universities,” she says. “To reflect society; to reflect the world.” 

Since, in the early 1990s, the Latinx populations were concentrated in California, New York City, South Florida, and Texas, that's where she went. Traveling to the Rio Grande Valley, in particular, was not easy. “I started going to those high schools,” said Domenech, “and recruited in South Texas before anyone else did. We were very successful.”

When students feared they couldn't meet academic expectations and parents worried about tuition costs and the culture shock of attending an Ivy League institution in an urban environment, Domenech reassured them—one family at a time and often in Spanish—that hard-working, committed scholars could thrive in Brown's welcoming, engaging, and supportive environment.

An impact that last generations

Among her first recruits to Brown was a Central High School student from Providence, the youngest child in a large Latinx family of very modest resources. Now a successful physician, he will attend his own son's Brown graduation this May. During a three-generational family photo shoot on campus in 2015, the alumnus's father (visiting from the Dominican Republic), thanked Domenech for all she'd done for his family. She, in turn, was grateful to meet his son and witness his success. “It's a privilege to work here,” she says. “The students are intelligent, empathetic, caring, and humble. This job is a way of giving opportunities to people who deserved the chance.” 

Brown's intention to achieve a fully diverse and inclusive campus is a work in process and in progress. While hiring Domenech nearly 30 years ago was an early step along that journey, Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University (DIAP) represents the University's boldest and most ambitious initiative yet. Through Domenech's persistence, persuasion, and skill, Brown successfully recruited 81 Latinx students to enroll in 1991; that number rose to more than 200 in 2018.

Honoring her contributions

In appreciation of her contributions to Latinx students and to Brown's commitment to a diverse community and at the urging of many generous donors, the Brown University Latino Alumni Council (BULAC) Endowed Scholarship—which provides financial support for Latinx students—was recently renamed the Mercedes Domenech Brown University Latino Alumni Council Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Students change me in so many positive ways. They inspire me and give me perspective. It's reciprocal; that's how life is—an exchange of ideas and experiences, with a common goal of being useful to society.

Mercedes Domenech

“I feel indebted to Mercedes and am delighted to participate in this fundraising effort,” says Suzanne Rivera '91, P'22, an early donor to the scholarship. “The beauty of a Brown education is the community of learners who enrich each other with their various experiences, talents, and values – both inside the classroom and outside. Mercedes has forever changed the character of Brown, because there is now a critical mass of Latinas and Latinos from all walks of life in the student body and the family of alumni.”

Victor Cerda '92, P'22, who also gave to the BULAC scholarship fund, is equally supportive: “Mercedes is the voice, face, and spirit of Brown for me and for many Latinx students. She was the reason I decided to attend Brown. The results of her work and commitment are noticeable when one looks at the dramatic growth of the Latinx student population on campus, which now includes my daughter. Those of us who Mercedes touched in our Brown journey owe it to her…to help other Latinx students experience Brown and its opportunities. It is time for the Mercedes ‘alums' to pay it forward.”

Although she retired from the Office of Admission in July 2018, Domenech continues to serve as Associate Dean of Medicine for Minority Affairs at the Warren Alpert Medical School. The first medical doctor to hold that position, she advises students, including those enrolled in the Program in Liberal Medical Education, as well as many alumni of diverse backgrounds. Her office—no surprise—is adorned with pictures, gifts, and mementos from many grateful alumni.

The expressions of gratitude are mutual. “Students change me in so many positive ways,” says Domenech. “They inspire me and give me perspective. It's reciprocal; that's how life is—an exchange of ideas and experiences, with a common goal of being useful to society.”

Domenech promises: "I will help students for the rest of my life."

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